“What will you give us in return?”
I stared dumbfounded at the attorney for the Rifkin family when this was the response to my pleas to change certain language in the North River purchase agreement after I discovered that the indemnity agreement and release compromised the City of Fort Wayne's ability to seek insurance coverage from historical owners of the property.
Indiana has some of the most lenient laws in the country when it comes to making environmental claims on old commercial insurance policies. With the North River site having been a commercial property for more than 100 years, the possibility of commercial coverage seems likely. It was a simple request of the Rifkins. I wasn't asking them to assign an existing policy. Rather, I simply requested a minor language change so as not to compromise the taxpayers' ability to make claims on a century of insurance coverage.
Indeed, the city was acquiring property with already-known environmental contamination; and the unknown could be exponentially worse. But apparently this was a negotiation – and what could I, a young councilman, offer billionaires? Especially when it was apparent that five of my colleagues were ready to support the purchase. But I offered what I had. My vote. And my support for the purchase, rather than my strong opposition.
Rejecting the offer, these sophisticated businessmen seemingly knew (or should have known) exactly what they had bargained for. Imagine my surprise in reading the Rifkin's Dec. 17 oped which took umbrage with the city, council, media and constituents who weighed in the matter.
Prominent among the Rifkins' concerns was what they described as the city “leaking” certain terms of the purchase agreement. But for those leaks, the Rifkins infer that they would have waived their mandate that the environmental reports be withheld from council's review. They further complain that it was “most likely a member of council” responsible for leaking the terms.
However, by the time the agreement came before council, the purchase had already required the scrutiny and approval of the Redevelopment Commission and Capital Improvement Board. As quasi-governmental entities, both boards require public meetings and disclosures of all business.
Query how the Rifkins were surprised by any public disclosure of the agreement. Indeed, the Rifkins were not simply negotiating a deal with a shrewd business. Rather, this was a deal with the public – the taxpayers I was elected to represent.
The Rifkins' oped attempts to divert the negative public perception created by their “straightforward business deal” toward critics of the deal – a deal that saw taxpayers pay nearly $1 million more than the appraisal plus all future unknown costs associated with the cleanup. And yes, the city agreed to rename Fourth Street with a name like “Rifkin Way.” Through it all, the Rifkins feel disrespected by this process, a process they viewed as a negotiation to the bitter end.
Reasonable minds can differ as to whether anyone was disrespected in this process. But as for the Rifkins, what they were ultimately given in return appears to be exactly what they bargained for.
Michael Barranda is an attorney and at-large representative on the Fort Wayne City Council.